Friends who live in other states have been burning up the phone lines of late, asking whether Florida is ready for Election Day 2004.
One of them called recently to say Mother Nature must be a Democrat. That's why she's sending all these hurricanes to get the state's attention before Nov. 2.
That's a jaded view, of course, but not surprising.
Their perspective on our state's preparedness to pull off a controversy-free election is shaped not only by the chaos of the 2000 presidential race, but by recent reports from Orlando-area residents that state officials are using intimidating tactics to keep them away from the polls.
According to a series of columns by Bob Herbert of the New York Times, Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers have questioned dozens of black voters about alleged irregularities that arose from Orlando's mayoral election in March. Many of those who were "interrogated" are elderly, wrote Herbert, and "some of those questioned have been active in get-out-the-vote campaigns."
The FDLE will not disclose the nature of its investigation, other than to say it's criminal and continuing. But that only adds credibility to Herbert's claim that "the vile smell of voter suppression is all over this so-called investigation. . . ."
He may be right. I honestly don't know.
And that's the same answer I am giving my friends Up North when they ask me if things down here are on the up-and-up. I just don't know.
Oh, I'd like to think Floridians learned our lesson since 2000. Being the laughingstock of the world should have been a great motivator. I was inclined to defend our state against allegations of being a banana republic in those days. Florida, I told them, was simply unfortunate enough to be the state that had its voting and legal systems _ and its reputation _ placed under a microscope. Do the same in another state, and you probably would find similar mistakes, I reasoned.
Sure, George W. Bush's brother, Jeb, was the governor here. And, yes, then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris was woefully unprepared for the events that unfolded, and she appeared to be taking her marching orders from some higher-ups in the GOP hierarchy.
But would they really stoop to stealing a presidential election?
I even argued that if Florida's critics wanted to point a finger, aim it at Ralph Nader and those 90,000-plus voters who wasted their ballots here to fulfill some misguided principle.
And now I tell my skeptical friends that the state has invested millions of dollars to upgrade voting machines in an effort to eliminate chads and doubt.
I tell them that in Hernando County, a County Commission race in August's primary election was so close that it necessitated a recount, the final result being an error of only one vote in the loser's favor. Or, in Pasco County, a recount in the District 2 School Board race showed a gain of three votes each for Ryan O'Reilly and Patricia Murphy, but no net difference in the outcome. Or in the 2002 Republican primary, when County Commissioner Jim Fowler held onto his seat by a mere 27 votes.
But the skeptic in me wonders why Florida's Legislature hasn't taken steps toward switching to a uniform system that allows voters to receive a paper receipt, as California has done. And, anticipating the scrutiny we will be under come November, why the governor and other state leaders haven't launched an all-out public service campaign to persuade the rest of the nation that we know what we're doing down here. Heck, I'd settle for a campaign that reassures just Floridians that every vote counts _ and will be counted.
Oppressive tactics like those cited in Orlando, and in other counties where voter drives have been negated by missed deadlines and unfamiliarity with the onerous bureaucracy do not inspire confidence; they breed suspicion. Same goes for the infamous "felons purge" that became an embarrassment to the governor.
Given how close George W. Bush and Democratic Party nominee John Kerry are in the polls, and the depth of mudslinging and misinformation in the campaign, Florida has to be perfect in this election. Anything less will reinforce the belief of those outside the state that we are better at casting doubt than a ballot.
There may be people who can confidently proclaim all is well, and that Election Day 2004 will bring proof that the cloud over the Sunshine State has lifted.
I don't know.
But I'm beginning to wonder about Mother Nature's proclivities. Let's hope Florida's next big storm doesn't hit on Nov. 2.
Jeff Webb is editor of editorials for the Times' Hernando edition. Reach him at webbsptimes.com, or (352) 754-6123.